Christopher Columbus did not discover America. And even if he did, America might have been ‘discovered’ a dozen times before Columbus. Furthermore, in no language was his name ‘Christopher Columbus.’ It was Christophorus Columbus in Latin, Christoforo Colombo in Italian and Christobal Colon in Spanish. When Columbus landed on a Caribbean island on October 12, 1492, he had absolutely no idea that it was America. Nobody knew it was America until Magellan’s crew finished circling the world in 1521, fifteen years after Columbus’s death. Until then, nobody had any idea of the world’s size or the location of its unexplored landmasses.
By the late 1400’s, Africa and Asia were reasonably well-explored. Prince Henry of Portugal (called Henry the Navigator though he never left dry land) set up a research center in 1415 at the country’s south-west point, Sagres. From Sagres, Portugal accumulated the knowledge of Africa which made possible Vasco de Gama’s circling of Africa to reach India in 1497. The Silk Road - established by the Chinese thousands of years before their first contact with Europe - gave Europeans the safe passage they needed through Asia to make detailed exploration. European maps of both continents exist from that era that are surprisingly accurate. But no ‘civilized’ European had ever attempted to sail much West of the Azores. There is documentary evidence which displays that even a thinker as early as Hesiod in the sixth century BC knew that the world was round. But until 1521, nobody had any idea of the world’s size. If Columbus had any idea of the distance between Spain and India to the West, he would never have attempted the venture.
But the world’s ignorance of this one simple fact propelled Columbus to super-human persistence in his effort to obtain funding for a voyage which every prudent statesman in the world viewed as crazy. Over a period of twelve years, he endured multiple refusals not only from the Spanish court but the Portoguese and French as well. When Queen Isabella finally relented, it was because she was a little crazy herself. In an age that saw the height of the Spanish Inquisition’s power, it counted for much that Columbus, like Isabella, was clearly a fanatical Catholic. The entire cost of his voyage would be less than the cost of entertaining a single royal visitor. Columbus’s goal was not all that lofty - he was not looking for a lost continent, merely to find a quicker way to Asia, convert and trade with natives, and perhaps find a way of encircling the Islamic infidels.
Columbus himself was a very competent seaman. He came from an upper-middle-class Genovese family of weavers and routinely set sail on voyages since he was ten years old. He was a well-built man who once fell overboard and swam six miles to shore. He was married to an extremely well-connected Portoguese family, worked on mapmaking with experts at Sagres, and even convinced a Spanish shipbuilder to subsidize his voyage. But the voyage was delayed for six years because crazy Queen Isabella insisted that if the voyage be made at all it could only be a royal enterprise.
The technology of his boats was state of the art for 1492, the crew numbered nearly 100 and included professionals, aristocrats, felons and expelled Jews. Columbus required his crew to sing hymns every hour on the hour. The ships had a surgeon and an Arabic translator who could barter with the natives of China and Japan.
Columbus himself was a very articulate man, perhaps even charismatic. Viewed in one light, he was a visionary man and perhaps a great one. Viewed in another, Columbus was clearly insane. And like many of the Renaissance’s great visionaries, he was penalized disproportionately for things that are not his fault. But his case is unique in that the punishment shows no signs of abating. Centuries ago, posterity rehabilitated Galileo, Dante, Giordano Bruno, Copernicus and even Martin Luther. However flawed they seem today, they are fundamentally forgiven their blemishes. But every one of these figures from history were enormously controversial in their own day, and perhaps for good reason. But alone among them, Columbus remains a person still more reviled in our time than he was in his own.
Historical evidence exists to show that Columbus meant both harm and help. Certainly he meant far less harm than many effective conquistadors of whom most who denigrate him have never heard. Queen Isabella herself condemned the reports she heard of Spaniards abusing natives. One of her principal advisors was a man named Bartolome de las Casas, who is better known to many Latin-American Catholics as the great ancestor of Liberation Theology. Even the Jesuits and Dominicans who controlled the Inquisition opposed the atrocities of the New World. Many friars who came to the new world did so with a mission to ensure that Native Americans would be dealt with justly. Isabella’s successor, Charles V, enacted comprehensive legislation called ‘The New Laws of 1542’ to ensure that native Americans would not be mistreated. These laws included the prohibition of slavery, the guarantee that Native Americans would be considered free persons under the law, that natives would be guaranteed compensation for their labor, a requirement that natives not be sent into mines unless proven absolutely necessary, and a limit on the amount natives were taxed. It’s hardly a perfect setup, but this was more progressive legislation than one would find in parts of the American south until the 1960’s. The only problem was how to enforce it.
It’s absolutely true that in 2005, unearthed testimony lost for centuries displayed that Columbus did indeed have a hand in the atrocities committed in the New World - after which Columbus and his brothers were brought back to Spain in shackles and chains. But let’s also remember, Columbus was never tried for his crimes. He was a man 1490’s Spain, an era which profligately burned heretics due to confessions the state obtained under torture. We will never fully understand the vast network of motives at play in this very complicated era of history.
In the 1490’s there was no such thing as a background check, and those who left with Columbus to settle the New World had mixed motives. Many of the new settlers were led to expect a world of ‘bountiful riches,’ only to encounter the same dull poverty they experienced in Spain. In a vast, unknown portion of the world, there is no conceivable way to police the actions of those who go ‘off the reservation.’ The proper analogy for Columbus is not to later imperialist atrocities like the Belgian Congo, it is to the Wild West. No governor could possibly hope to contain the violence therein. Perhaps Columbus was every bit the tyrant which is alleged, but we will never know. And even if we did know that he was a tyrant, why is Columbus Day considered so much more egregious than President’s Weekend? The orders of Abraham Lincoln killed far more people than Columbus’s, but to our contemporary eyes the cause for which Lincoln killed so many was quite just. But was the preservation of the union worth the deaths of 700,000? In another century, perhaps we won't think it was, and Lincoln will not be considered the great man we now think he is.
So if you have an opinion about Columbus Day, good for you. Celebrate it, don’t celebrate it, nobody cares. It’s a stupid holiday about a complicated historical figure that’s made all the more stupid by all kinds of people who have no idea who Columbus was.